Soeur Angèle (creator: Henry Catalan)

The Embarrassed Ladies dust cover
Soeur (Sister) Angèle must have been the first nun-detective in fiction. She is a Sister of Charity (an order, we are told, founded by Vincent de Paul) but is also a medical doctor, attached at first to the French hospital and orphanage in Bethlehem, although we never see her there. She had previously been Dr Angèle Persent d'Ericy, before she had decided to become a nun. "She was of medium height .... Her face, freckled and lit up by two sparkling humorous eyes, was attractive. It fairly radiated intelligence and good will. She held herself very straight .... You knew that she was both kind and intelligent". She has "a sort of evangelical candour and purity of motive" and "an incurable idealisation of the moral quality of other people". Or, as her old professor put it, "You're still the same self-opinionated little devil" She nearly always carries "a large black bag ("there seemed nothing her enormous bag did not contain") and an immense umbrella" - although, by the second book, the color of the bag and umbrella seems to have changed to slate blue to match her habit.

She was created by the French author Henri (Henry in the English editions) Catalan whose real name was Henri Dupuy-Mazuel (1885 - early 1960s?), who was the author of numerous novels, short stories and screenplays for silent films, and producer of the film Le Tournoi (The Tournament) that was directed by Jean Renoir in 1929. He used the pseudonym Henry Catalan for his Soeur Angèle novels. (I would welcome a photo and/or more information about him. Please use my guest book to get in touch with me.)

Soeur Angèle and the Embarrassed Ladies (English translation, 1955)
Soeur Angèle and the Embarrassed Ladies sees Soeur Angèle on a few days' visit to Paris begging for money to support both hospital and orphanage. The first person she approaches is a distant cousin, Baron d'Orchais, who is a thoroughly unpleasant "bargain basement Don Juan". But the first she sees of him is his murdered blood-soaked body. She notices five bundles of letters in women's handwriting, and promptly slips them, together with an "unusual number of photographs of women" into her large bag. "Only then did she fall on her knees alongside the body and begin to pray."

When Chief Inspector Hermancourt and a police colleague arrive, they find no police doctor is available so send for the irascible "Old Goat", more correctly known as Professor Robin, who turns out to know Soeur Angèle very well as "for two years after taking her medical doctorate, she followed my courses in Legal Medicine, and never in all my career have I had such a gifted student. Besides, I've known her from her birth and I think the world of her. I'd have taken her for my assistant ... but she preferred to become a nun. Can you understand it?"
"Easily," said the Chief Inspector with a smile."
"What?" roared the Professor.

Soeur Angèle noticed things that the police had overlooked: a secret stairway ("for the reception of certain .... special friends," she guessed) as well as two bullet holes near the window. The police promptly arrested the Baron's maid and valet. Soeur Angèle told them she was certain they were innocent. "I've been mixed up in this affair by what you call Chance and I call Providence," she said, so would like to "come back here in the course of the afternoon and do a little more looking and thinking". The amused Chief Inspector recklessly remarked that he couldn't let slide "the opportunity of watching a nun-detective in action". Soeur Angèle "smiled her delight, and all the freckles on her face seemed to sparkle in the sun like so many flecks of gold".

She sets about returning the lovers' letters that she walked off with, and soon finds herself involved in the "amoral and futile" uglier side of life in Paris, and comes to realise "that it had been the silliest sort of pride to think that she could clear up the whole mystery by herself. She regretted more bitterly han ever that she had not been able to talk it all ovver with the Superior General". Then confronted with a dying child, she felt "sudden rebellion: it was too unjust, too cruel. Where was the infinite goodness of God?" Then "she bowed her head in acceptance .... A sense of deep humility brought her to her knees, and she murmured: "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven".

She is a resolute determined woman who is quite ready to fight off an attacker: "Instinctively she swung round and hit the newcomer with her umbrella. She had put all her strength into the blow and she got him on the skull. He went down in a heap". Then she quickly bent over him. "It's nothing much. He's simply knocked out, thank God!" And it is she, of course, who eventually confronts the murderer.

Right at the end, one of the characters tells Soeur Angèle, "You see how badly constructed is this story which has brought us together .... The rules of the novel are not observed .... In a good novel, with a suitable final chapter, the doctor-hero would be tall and dark and he'd get the heroine. Instead of which the doctor wears a cornette and is off to some dim hospital in the Near East". But the very last word is with Soeur Angèle, "I'll be back," she says.

The story is very well constructed, as you'd expect of such an experienced author, and is told with humour and is quite entertaining. But Soeur Angèle herself does not always make such a very convincing nun.

Soeur Angèle and the Ghosts of Chambord (English version,1956)
Soeur Angèle and the Ghosts of Chambord sees Soeur Angèle transferred back to France, this time to the château of kings at Chambord, where she is one of two nuns in charge of a party of thirty little girls from the Christian Family Movement who have come for a picnic.

She was sent to do this "for the children are all in more or less delicate health, and need skilled attention". Not that they really get it from Soeur Angèle, because she soon discovers a dying man who is dressed in full 17th century costume. He turns out to be one of the leading actors in a film production (something the author knew all about).

One of the girls, the young and precocious 12-year-old Spanish girl, Conchita, offers to help her, saying, "Oh! Take me with you. If someone's been bumped off, I might be useful".
"Once and for all, Conchita, will you speak properly!"
'The child flushed slightly under her brown skin. Her large black eyes gazed affectionately at the sister and she answered:
"Of course. I mean, if he's had it."
The nun (Soeur Angèle) looked at her helplessly, then signed to her that she might come.'
The (anonymous) English translation makes it all very lively and amusing.

When the Juge d'Instruction and the police superintendent arrive, it turns out that they both know of Soeur Angèle's previous case and are happy to let her sit in on their investigations. Professor Robin gets involved too, so Soeur Angèle's help is (surprisingly perhaps) much appreciated.

The little girl Conchita turns out to be quite a formidable character. "What are you going to be when you grow up?" a young priest asks her.
"A bull fighter, father. A matador. I'll kill 'em."
"I'm sure you will. I'm sorry for those bulls."
Soeur Angèle tries to send Conchita out of the room when anything unsuitable comes up, but the little girl knows all about it. "You made a bad guess, Sister, when you sent me out of this room; the conversation was pretty clean in here. But you should have heard the way all those clowns talked in the other room. It would have made a band of picadors blush ... I bet I learnt more from listening in there than you did with all your questions." Then "to the confusion of the nun and the delight of the policeman, she told them what she had heard in detail, with a picturesqeness all her own. In the event, none of itr was relevant, but it was certainly colourful".

Later on, Soeur Angèle feels she has to turn to an old priest for guidance. "My mind is in a hopeless muddle, I can't see the issue clearly; the harder I try, the more confused I become". The priest takes her and Conchita into the church where they kneel down at the altar. She "said no prayer. An extraordinary sense of peace flowed into her soul and spread through all her being, a sense that storm lay behind and a summer sea before her. So rich and total was the feeling that for a moment she knew a slight breath of fear. But that passed and joy was all."

Soeur Angèle attends the actor's funeral. She notices "the arrival of the funeral director - immeasurably impressive, tall, with the profile of a Roman emperor, clothed in spotless black, the very embodiment of controlled grief ... The (dead actor's) not very gieving widow "gazed at him, her eyes wide .... 'God,' she breathed, 'isn't he beautiful?' " Soeur Angèle could not help dropping her rosary in surprise. She "could hardly help observihg that nobody else seemed to be praying: and she was struck, as always, with the curious fact that people could attend a funeral without giving a thought to their own death. At a funeral, as everywhere else, they seemed to maintain the illusion that they would live for ever."

One of the more interesting members of the film crew is the scriptwriter, one Pedro Durand. "I've seen him," the police superintendent, Fortin, says, "and he looks to me rather odder than all the rest (of the crew) put together. But he looks intelligent, which the others don't." We are also told that "He was tall, his eyes very blue, his flaxen hair as unruly as Fortin's own." The writer explains, "I'll die if I don't eat. So I write this stuff. Not that I kid myself that I could be writing masterpieces. I'm one of a swarm of poor devils called writers. We're all about level these days, all good enough, nobody good. A hundred years from now when we're all in a better world - it can hardly be worse, I imagine - our works will be as unknown as our decomposed bodies." Could this possibly be a self-portrait by the author, who was himself a scriptwiter of silent films?

Soeur Angèle says, 'It is not my business to catch murderers, my sole interest is in the protection of the innocent". But, to save the innocent, she has to reveal the true murderer. It all makes an entertaining read, although rather too much time is taken up with interviews of suspects, but, like the other books in the series, it's quite short and written with a nice sense of humor.

Soeur Angèle and the Bell Ringer's Niece (1957)
Soeur Angèle and the Bell Ringer's Niece is the best of the three novels, with the most coherent and gripping plot. It is set in Fermaize, a quiet village in the Loire valley, where Soeur Angèle is Mother Superior at a hospice for old men. Then someone savagely kills inoffensive old Andre Fisard, the bell-ringer. His niece, young Monique, then starts seeing visions of the Virgin Mary. It looks as though the village will become a major centre of pilgrimage - but Soeur Angèle and the village priest are not convinced. She can recognise hypnotism when she sees it.

The police suspect Jerome, the gardener at the hospice, of the murder, as he had been seen near the scene of the crime. Soeur Angèle is very conveniently asked to attend his interview with Chief Inspector Hermancourt. She ends up believing him innocent, but the police are not convinced. Soeur Angèle goes off to seek the advice of Professor Robin, but he is ill in bed and shouts at her, "I don't want any medicine, and I don't want any prayers. They're both a lot of quackery. And now come closer, I'm going to kiss you all the same." And he agrees that the child Monique shows all the clasic symptoms of hypnotism. But it is Soeur Angèle who eventually works out who the hypnotist must have been.

However, two apparent miracles do occur: an old man is healed and a heavy storm occurs after Monique has prophesied rain. But as Soeur Angèle points out, even if the vision is not real, prayers to Our Blessed lady are never wasted: "No one has ever prayed to her in vain".

The non-believing mayor thinks "It's fishy - a nun becoming a doctor ... I tell you it just isn't Catholic!" Chief Inspector Hermancourt tells him, "She is no run-of-the-mill nun, I mean no disrespect when I say she's a queer one, but a damn good one too .... The principal thing about her is that she has her own highly individual way of understanding charity".

Later on, the mayor, seeing all the financial disadvantages that the lack of visions would bring, angily accuses her, "Good heavens, woman. have you lost your faith?"
Soeur Angèle smiled broadly. "I understood that you were the sworn enemy of religion and of all the superstitions, as you call them. So I am startled, but enchanted, to find you thus making public confession of your new-found faith .... I congratulate you. I rejoice with you."
The Mayor turned scarlet, "My first duty, Sister, is to the interests of my electors. Those inerests come before everything, even before my own personal views. And it is because you are seriously damaging those interests that I ... er ... that I ... good God! Are you trying to make a fool of me?"
"Heaven forbid," said Soeur Angèle.

It all makes a good, strong story.

There is hardly anything about the author on the web, or indeed anywhere else.

Used translations of the books can be found.

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